Overthinking can lead to serious emotional distress and increase your risk of mental health problems
Thinking about something in endless circles — is exhausting.
While everyone overthinks a few things once in a while, chronic over-thinkers spend most of their waking time ruminating, which puts pressure on themselves. They then mistake that pressure to be stress.
“There are people who have levels of overthinking that are just pathological,” says clinical psychologist Catherine Pittman, an associate professor in the psychology department at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
“But the average person also just tends to overthink things.” Pittman is also the author of “Rewire Your Anxious Brain: How to Use the Neuroscience of Fear to End Anxiety, Panic, and Worry.”
Overthinking can take many forms: endlessly deliberating when making a decision (and then questioning the decision), attempting to read minds, trying to predict the future, reading into the smallest of details, etc.
People who overthink consistently run commentaries in their heads, criticising and picking apart what they said and did yesterday, terrified that they look bad — and fretting about a terrible future that might await them
‘What ifs’ and ‘shoulds’ dominate their thinking, as if an invisible jury is sitting in judgement on their lives. And they also agonise over what to post online because they are deeply concerned about how other people will interpret their posts and updates.
They don’t sleep well because ruminating and worrying keep them awake at night. “Ruminators repetitively go over events, asking big questions: Why did that happen? What does it mean?” adds Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, the chair of the department of psychology at Yale University and the author of Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking and Reclaim Your Life. “But they never find any answers.”
If you consistently focus on ruminating and make it a habit, it becomes a loop, And the more you do it, the harder it is to stop. Clinical psychologist Helen Odessky, Psy. D., shares some insight. “So often people confuse overthinking with problem-solving,” says Odessky, the author of “Stop Anxiety from Stopping You.” “But what ends up happening is we just sort of go in a loop,” Odessky says. “We’re not really solving a problem.”
Overthinking is destructive and mentally draining. It can make you feel like you’re stuck in one place, and if you don’t act, it can greatly impact on your day-to-day life. It can quickly put your health and total well-being at risk. Rumination makes you more susceptible to depression and anxiety.
Many people overthink because they are scared of the future, and what could potentially go wrong. “Because we feel vulnerable about the future, we keep trying to solve problems in our head,” says David Carbonell, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Worry Trick: How Your Brain Tricks You into Expecting the Worst and What You Can Do About It.”
Extreme overthinking can easily sap your sense of control over your life. It robs us of active participation in everything around us.
“Chronic worriers show an increased incidence of coronary problems and suppressed immune functioning. Dwelling on the past or the future also takes us away from the present, rendering us unable to complete the work currently on our plates. If you ask ruminators how they are feeling, none will say “happy.” Most feel miserable,” says Nicholas Petrie, a senior faculty member at the Center for Creative Leadership.
Overthinking can trap the brain in a worry cycle. When ruminating become as natural as breathing, you need to quickly deal with it and find a solution to it.
“When an unpleasant event puts us in a despondent mood, it’s easier to recall other times when we’ve felt terrible. That can set the stage for a ruminator to work herself into a downward spiral,” writes Amy Maclin of Real Simple.
How to defeat this pattern of thinking and win your life back
Chronic worrying is not permanent. It’s a mental habit that can be broken. You can train your brain to look at life from a different perspective.
To overcome overthinking, Pittman recommends you replace the thought. “Telling yourself to not to have a certain thought is not the way to not have the thought,” she says.”You need to replace the thought.” What if she were to tell you to stop thinking about pink elephants? What are you going to think about? That’s right: pink elephants. If you don’t want to think about a pink elephant, conjure up an image of, say, a tortoise. “Maybe there’s a big tortoise holding a rose in its mouth as it crawls,” says Pittman. “You’re not thinking about pink elephants now.”
Talk yourself out of it by noticing when you’re stuck in your head. You can tame your overthinking habit if you can start taking a grip on your self-talk — that inner voice that provides a running monologue throughout the day and even into the night.
“You can cultivate a little psychological distance by generating other interpretations of the situation, which makes your negative thoughts less believable,” says Bruce Hubbard, the director of the Cognitive Health Group and an adjunct assistant professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. This is called cognitive restructuring.
Ask yourself — What’s the probability that what I’m scared of will actually happen? If the probability is low, what are some more likely outcomes?
If it’s a problem you keep ruminating about, rephrase the issue to reflect the positive outcome you’re looking for,” suggests Nolen-Hoeksema.
“Instead of “I’m stuck in my career,” tell yourself or better still write, “I want a job where I feel more engaged.” Then make a plan to expand your skills, network, and look for opportunities for a better career.
Find a constructive way of processing any worries or negative thoughts, says Honey. “Write your thoughts down in a journal every night before bed or first thing in the morning — they don’t have to be in any order. Do a ‘brain dump’ of everything on your mind onto the page. Sometimes that can afford a sense of relief, ” recommends Honey Langcaster-James, a psychologist.
You can also control your ruminating habit by connecting with your senses. Begin to notice what you can hear, see, smell, taste, and feel.
The idea is to reconnect with your immediate world and everything around you. When you begin to notice, you spend less time in your head.
You can also notice your overthinking habit and talk yourself out of it. Becoming self-aware can help you take control.
“Pay a little more attention,” says Carbonell. “Say something like: I’m feeling kind of anxious and uncomfortable. Where am I? Am I all in my head? Maybe I should go take a walk around the block and see what happens.”
Recognise your brain is in overdrive or ruminating mode, and then try to snap out of it immediately. Or better still, distract yourself and redirect your attention to something else that requires focus.
“If you need to interrupt and replace hundreds of times a day, it will stop fast, probably within a day,” says Dr Margaret Weherenberg, a psychologist and author of The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques. “Even if the switch is simply to return attention to the task at hand, it should be a decision to change ruminative thoughts.”
It takes practice, but with time, you will be able to easily recognise when you are worrying unnecessarily, and choose instead, to do something in real life rather than spending a lot of time in your head.
For example, convert, “I can’t believe this happened” to “What can I do to prevent it from happening again?” or convert “I don’t have good friends!” to “What steps could I take to deepen the friendships I have and find new ones?” recommends Ryan Howes, PhD.
Don’t get lost in thoughts about what you could have, would have, and should have done differently. Mental stress can seriously impact your quality of life.
An overactive mind can make life miserable. Learning how to stop spending time in your head is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
Like all habits, changing your destructive thought patterns can be a challenge, but it’s not impossible. With practice, you can train your brain to perceive things differently and reduce the stress of overthinking.
If overthinking is ruining your life, and if you think you may be spiralling into depression because of your thoughts, it pays to get professional help.